Saturday, 5 April 2014

Can You See Me Now? By Pippa Goodhart


Back in February, the wonderful Imagine! Festival for children ran in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank.  I was involved in a small way with the part of that festival run by the Inclusive Minds collective.  As the name implies, their session was all about making books and stories accessible to all sorts of children, and making sure that books for children include every sort of child and children from all sorts of backgrounds.  It was a wonderful day of sensory stories, signed poetry, a huge wall on which all could draw themselves (or anything they fancied), some serious adult debate, and a lot of story sharing, drawing, chatter and fun.  And it set me thinking.

 
It is, of course, important to include children of all races, from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and those with disabilities, naturally within picture books; representing all of us without exclusion.  Nick Sharratt has managed to include a number of children with visual clues to particular conditions in our’ Just Imagine’ book’s busy pictures.

 
But the What About Me? event stated that, ‘the organisers believe that ALL children should be able to see themselves, their lives, their friends and their families represented in the stories and pictures they are given.’  But I wonder if there isn’t a danger that that idea might be taken too literally?  Does that mean that a boy with ginger hair who wears a hearing aid won’t see himself in a picture of a black haired girl wearing a hearing aid?  Do we really want to see ourselves exactly in books?  If so, books will have to be tailor-made for each reader … and I, for one, DON’T want to read about, or see, a story about a plump middle-aged woman with scruffy hair who writes stories for children!  I want other experiences, beyond my own real ones, when I read.  But I DO want to find emotional states in stories that I recognise and want to explore.  It’s at that gut feeling level that I find the point of contact between myself and a story. 
 

I think we’re in danger of forgetting the power of imagination in all this, and I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter. 

For some reason it’s easier to identify with a fictional character who looks totally unlike us than it is to identify with a character who is human, but different from us in age or sex or appearance or background.  So we all sympathise with lovely elephant Elmer’s insecurity in the happy story about him by David McKee in which patchwork Elmer attempts to blend in with the grey elephants.  A similar story about a child with, for example, a walking frame, who tried to get rid of the walking frame so as to look like the other children, would tend to be a very uncomfortable and unhappy read.  Elmer does a better job than a human character could in making us realise how it might be difficult to be different, and the need for others to consider and do something about that difficulty … in this case by having an Elmer Day once a year when all the elephants paint themselves fancy colours.    

 
There are picture books with animal characters which more obviously tackle a specific disability.  Jeanne Willis and Sarah Fox-Davies’ ‘Mole’s Sunrise’ is a very beautiful book in which blind Mole’s kind friends take him to ‘see’ the sun rise, and describe what they see so as to share that visual experience with Mole.    

Yes, we certainly do need children of all sorts included in picture books, but please don’t forget the richness of what is already out there in stories that on the surface are about animals, but at heart are all about human emotions and experiences.

Have you got other picture book examples you would recommend, featuring examples of anthropomorphic characters whose experiences might chime with disabled or marginalised children? 

 

14 comments:

  1. I agree, Pippa. Non-human characters can bring everyone in - they're very inclusive. Kids hate being preached at. They can spot it a mile off. My own son loved 'A Dinosaur Called Tiny' by Alan Durant, illustrated by Jo Simpson. its about a dinosaur who is born very tiny, and stays tiny compared to the other dinosaurs, but becomes a hero. My youngest son (who is disabled and doesn't speak) handed that book to me to read over and over and over again, and I never got bored sharing it with him, as we both gloried in Tiny's triumph. I'd recommend it. Our copy is now very battered, a good sign!

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    1. That sounds a wonderful book, and a very important one for a particular child. An example of picture books at their most positively powerful. Thank you so much, Moira.

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  2. Thinking about it, he also loves The Gruffalo, another book where the tiny guy triumphs!

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  3. 'Moles in Love' by David Bedford (illus by Rosalind Beardshaw) is a fun story about a mole searching for love, and it portrays the wearing of glasses in a positive way. I remember a nursery school teacher saying she was always on the lookout for inclusive picture books, such as the wearing of glasses, because she wanted them in the nursery and had difficulty finding enough (plus it ticked Ofsted boxes).
    There's also a follow-up: Moles's Babies!

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    1. Sorry to have been slow in responding. I was busy with filming yesterday as a local yokel 'extra' in the congregation in church for a new murder mystery series based in my village. A strange experience, but fun!
      That's a really interesting book for discussion, Paeony. Glasses as an accessory for an animal works, I think, as do bags and hats and the like. And they have a real role in the book you describe. But, meanwhile, there's a growing feeling that the gender coding of 'naked' or natural looking animal being male whilst a female needing to be signalled with a bow in the hair or similar is sending out messages about the sexes that might not be good.

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    2. Oh, goodness, that gender marking has been annoying me for YEARS! Eyelashes, larger eyes, bows, curls, skirts, sometimes even bumpy bits = female. 'Normal' animal = male. Very common in cartoons, too. I feel it's imposing something on small readers that isn't good at all, teaching them to look out for signals like that to interpret.

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  4. A good point well made, Pippa. I love 'Oh, Boris!' which is about a new bear in school struggling to fit in because he is so different. It makes the point in a far more cosy way than human characters ever could.

    By the way, we have a baby board book at home with a picture of a dark-skinned woman and the caption reads 'Hello, Mummy!' I sometimes - not always - edit as I read aloud and say 'Hello, lady!' instead, because to my children, the picture looks nothing like mummy. Imagine how it feels to find that in just about every single book you read!

    It is so important that there are plenty of books for plenty of people, so that all of our lives are properly reflected. Looking at some of the publishers' catalogues for Bologna, there are some wonderful titles coming out in the next 12 months with black and mixed race main characters. But most importantly, they look like strong stories. That's what unites us all.

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    1. Good points well made, yourself, Michelle! And that sounds like positive news from Bologna. Thank you.

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  5. This book belongs to Aye Aye by Richard Byrne - Aye Aye desperately wants to be in a picture book, but the other animals don't think he's cute-looking enough...

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    1. Ah yes, I love that book! And it's a book that's exactly about the inclusion or not into a picture book. A spot-on example, Jane.

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  6. Nice post Pippa. The film extra stuff sounds fascinating btw ;-)
    The only books I could think of off the top of my head were the 'Monty, the Dog Who Wears Glasses' series, though whether they count I'm not sure as the story lines weren't often about the glasses, he just wears them.

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  7. I think that's very much the point, Jonathan; that he just happens to wear glasses rather than them being a big deal that defines his character and his life. He's a really good example.
    Being an extra (or 'supporting artist', apparently!) is fun, but they took one look at me and said 'I think you can be a village eccentric', so I look more barmy than in real life, and no glamorising at all. The real star of the show is a puppy!

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  8. Great post in general, but having worked with very young children with developmental delays and disabilities of all kinds, at those early stages they may need something really concrete and familiar to identify with. Animals often don't cut it at first. There is a developmental hierarchy to interpreting pictures which starts with photographs of the real thing and moves on to clear drawings, then to more stylised and fanciful representations. (Of course, children who are learning quickly may well appear to skip these stages.) I've known children get very excited to see photo picture-books of children like themselves in glasses or with hearing aids, walking aids etc. as a starting point to getting engaged with books. Just as babies love pictures of other babies! Sadly, photo picture books seem to go in and - mostly out - of fashion and aren't always available when you need them.

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  9. That's really interesting to learn, thank you, Julia. I didn't know that, but now that you point it out it makes perfect sense. Most non-disabled and non-disadvantaged children are so sophisticated in their understanding of the game of storytelling that it's easy to forget that understanding has to be learned. I wouldn't ever advocate that picture book stories are always about animals, only that animals can be helpful in reaching out to children. But it would be interesting to try storytelling with photographs. Most books that use photographs are non-fiction. Interesting. Thank you.

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